March 10 2012 Saturday at 03:41 PM

A Found Piece of History

or: The Little Needlework Teacher with Green Hair

Surprised that I collect embroidery books? Prolly not. But what I found today is truly special. Books on embroidery are often small print-runs, and some of my favorites are long out-of-print. I rarely turn down any vintage embroidery books that come my way. Friends and family kindly give me what they find, I'll scoop up a pile at a thrift store or garage sale, pay the few dollars, and take them home to sort through. The result is a pretty big collection. But, most of my books are still in storage and I've really been missing them. So, while at an estate sale today I made sure to check out the books.

Today's find was different. 


Score! The lady of the house was a needleworker. Nothing different about that. I bought the whole pile ready to grow my personal resource library again -even though I already have one or two of these titles, especially those by Constance Howard. (The Constance Howard Book of Stitches is one of my favorites.)

Let's meet Constance Howard, or "Mrs. P" (as she was called by her students):

 

There she is. I've seen this photo so many times from the back of the many, exhaustively researched books she wrote. She looks a bit stern doesn't she? Like she'd rap your knuckles and tell you that your stitches were all wrong it was time to just start all over again or not bother. Right? 

Get ready for a few surprises.

 

The Balcony - Constance Howard, 1946

First of all, her work looked like this. If you told me this piece was from the groovy 70's, I'd believe you. For 1946, this seems unusually loose, illustrative and lovely. Icy wind carrying leaves across a balcony letting a winsome girl know winter is coming. The wrought-iron balcony alternates from black and white for contrast against the ground fabric. Lovely. Not what I'd expect from the lady in the photo.

But get this: Constance Howard always wore her hair (no, not in a bun)...dyed green. G R E E N. With lithographer's ink. Because it was the 1930's and there was no Manic Panic back then. Still think she looks like some uptight, stern needleworker? Perhaps not. Think we're all renegade and outrageous? Perhaps not.

When I got back to the car, I started flipping through each book to see what I'd just picked up. I saw some inscriptions...and then I looked closer:

Every copy was signed by Constance Howard. Gasp! I wiped my eyes as if seeing a mirage and looked again. These are signatures! "To Elsa". Elsa who? Do I really have signed copies of Constance Howard's books? My heart was pounding. Who's "Elsa"? Was she some uber fan? Are they going to knock on the window of the car and tell me they just realized these books aren't for sale? (Luckily not.)

Once home, I started looking at the cover page to every book I had just bought to see if there were any hints...

 

Aha! THAT Elsa Williams. Wait, who's Elsa Williams? Oh great and wise google...please just tell me...

An author and designer! Elsa S. Williams of the Elsa Williams School of Needlearts! Her books and kits are all over the internets. Has she recently passed away? Was this her estate sale? Did she retire to California? Was this a relative? Or, did someone purchase these books from her school years ago? Alas -those answers are not known. 


Elsa Williams School of Needlearts - image via cardcow.com

What I do know is, that I feel like I own something really, really special, that is of great significance to me: a stack of books previously owned by Elsa Williams, signed to her by Constance Howard.


How cool is that?

To see a real photo of her green hair, and learn more about Constance Howard, click here.

Any information about Elsa Williams and her School of Needlearts would be greatly appreciated.
Comment here (top of the page), or email me.

Update 3/12/12: More information has come in about Elsa Williams and her School of Needlearts!

Rebekah Blades' curiosity sent her on a researching mission that turned up several links. Here's a photo of Elsa Williams with some information about the establishment of her live-in needlearts school (no, you all can not move into my house -sorry). Elsa also began writing a nationally syndicated column called "Joy of Stitching" in 1975. The last big needlework revival. T'was ever thus.

Dawn Rogal (who was the winner of the Mod Contest from last year) was once a student at Elsa's school. I hope she doesn't mind me sharing her recollections with you:

"It was 1981. I had worked all year at my part-time job, and most of the summer to save up to spend a week at the Elsa Williams School of Needlework. While other kids were spending the summer doing who knows what, I was in Boston learning about Jacobean crewel embroidery and needlepoint. We spent all day stitching, then got into our jammies and stitched some more. I can’t remember how many of us were in the class, I do know I was the youngest. The food was amazing and we stayed right in the house. It was such an amazing week for me and I’ll never forget it. I learned serious stitching technique that I have always valued. I received a small silver thimble for “graduating”. With each class you got another thimble with an increasingly valuable stone set in it.

We didn’t meet Elsa Williams, but I remember her needlepoint wool yarns and canvases being gorgeous. We used six-strand cotton for the Jacobean work. The instructor taught us to pull out no more than an arm’s length of thread. Then to take each strand out separately and put them back together (however many you needed), holding one end in one hand and pulling down on the threads several times. This gave the cotton a silky look to it along while making the threads tangle less. It pains me to see people work with their thread in any other way. This is also where I learned to use no larger a hoop than you can almost reach across with the hand holding it, so really no larger than 4” to 5” wide. Good tips that I’ve (obviously) never forgotten."
 
You can see one of these Lord-of-the-Rings-like thimbles here. I've asked Dawn if she still has hers.

Do YOU hold a thimble from Elsa's school?